Binge on some of these movies for May Day

It might have been through your family, your friends or through your workplace that you were first introduced to the collective power of a union. For others, it was through the silver screen. If you’re still looking for inspiration, or if you’re trying to inspire others to understand what unions have fought for and achieved, you might just find it in the cinema or on your streaming service of choice.

Here’s a list of some of our favourite films about unionism, ones that will hopefully continue to inspire you and that you can revisit on 1 May, or any other day.

A Bugs Life

(dir. John Lasseter, 1998)

Get ‘em early, yeah? This Pixar film tells the story of a colony of ants besieged by a small group of grasshoppers who demand that the ants provide all their food ahead of the wet season. This has always been the way and the ants have fallen into that tradition, but one ant suggests they stand up and fight back.

While the word union is never actually mentioned, the concept clearly rings out through this fun family adventure. The lead grasshopper even notes that if the ants ever realise that there’s more of them than there are grasshoppers, that will be the end of their free meal ticket. The collective power at the end serves the ants well and they fight off the grasshoppers for the last time.

Best quote:

Ants are not meant to serve grasshoppers. I’ve seen these ants do great things, and year after year they somehow manage to pick food for themselves *and* you. So-so who is the weaker species? Ants don’t serve grasshoppers! It’s *you* who need *us*! We’re a lot stronger than you say we are… And you know it, don’t you?

Brassed Off

(dir. Mark Herman, 1997)

In a small mining town, a colliery band face the closure of their mine while simultaneously preparing for an important brass band competition. Unions provide the background to this story, set firmly in Thatcher’s England, as the band try to stay together amidst the miners’ strike, pit closures and redundancies.

Billy Elliot

(dir. Stephen Daltry, 2000)

Also set during the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s England, Billy Elliot is the story of a young boy who discovers a love of dancing. His father and brother are miners on strike from their County Durham pit and tensions run high as Billy attempts to continue his passion without his family knowing. When they finally begin to support his efforts, his dad considers the unthinkable – crossing the picket line in order that he can afford to pay for his son’s audition to the Royal Ballet School.

The film covers the desperation the miners found themselves in during the year long strike, including the soup kitchens that were sometimes the only source of food for miners and families and daily confrontations with police.

Best quote:

Billy : So, what’s it like, like?

Dad : What’s what like?

Billy : London.

Dad : I don’t know, son. I never made it past Durham.

Billy : Have you never been?

Dad : Why would I want to go to London?

Billy : It’s the capital city!

Dad : Well, there are no mines in London.

Billy : Jesus Christ, is that all you think about?

Made in Dagenham

(dir. Nigel Cole, 2010)

The story of the women machine workers fighting for equal pay is a much brighter feel-good story than some of the others of this list. What this film does a rare thing in modern cinema is show the success of strike action. The female workers come out on top and are awarded equal pay with their male counterparts, despite opposition from many – including their male union colleagues.

Best quote:

We’re on the lowest rate of the entire bleeding factory despite the fact we got considerable skill. And there’s only one possible reason for that. It’s cause we’re women. And in the workplace, women get paid less than men, no matter what skill they got! Which is why from now on, we got to demand a level playing field and rates of pay which reflect the job you do!

Norma Rae

(dir. Martin Ritt, 1979)

A textile worker in North Carolina becomes involved in trade union actions in the factory where she works. She sees the creation of a union in her worksite as the only way to save her co-workers and herself from the unhealthy and dangerous working conditions.

Sunday Too Far Away

(dir. Jen Hannam, 1975)

An Aussie entry into the list. While the union action isn’t the driving force of the narrative, it’s a welcome bookend to this collection of films featuring a blue-collar industry once again fighting against scabs and management trying to take away the rightfully earned salaries of shearers in the Aussie outback.

Best quote:

“You’re scabs! That’s what ya are! You’re the lowest form of life!”